It’s November again, and that means people are reminded to count their blessings. With Thanksgiving around the corner, gratitude creeps to the forefront of our minds taking on a thoughtfulness that is both beautiful and refreshing. It is apropos that this story should run in November, but really, the thoughtfulness of Northwest Harvest, a food bank distributor whose Central Washington HQ is in Yakima, is a year-round endeavor. Providing food for food banks across the state, it is their mission for “hungry people statewide to have access to nutritious food while respecting their dignity and promoting good health.” What an awesome mission statement.
A chance encounter a couple of months ago left me chatting in a pear orchard with Big John Pulliam, a truck driver for Northwest Harvest. His giant hand shook mine warmly, and we commenced a long talk about food, the nature of giving, and how much he loves his job. Of course, the rooted gal in me was fascinated by their agricultural connections and the donations they receive from farms and orchards all over the Yakima Valley. I hadn’t realized their reach was so broad, and that the food they collected had so much variety. The average food drive typically encourages the nonperishables for obvious reasons, but I hadn’t realized how much fresh food is donated regularly as well. The more we talked, the more I was moved by Big John himself. An incredibly genuine and lovely human, he had nothing but wonderful things to say about his employer and everything they do. I wanted to not just know more, but to experience it myself by entering the Northwest Harvest web, and follow the breadcrumb trail from a donation at a farm site, to the hands of a person at a food bank.
A few weeks later, on a cold Tuesday morning in October, I pull up to Northwest Harvest as Big John is getting the truck warmed up. We’re off to Inaba Produce Farms in Wapato for a pick up. It’s a beautiful clear morning as we head into the Lower Valley. As his name implies, Big John is a big guy. I think he needs the extra room for his giant heart. Rolling down Lateral A, watching the world through a bug splattered windshield, the smell of peppers noticeable in the truck as we pass a pepper field, we talk about family, engine machining, Australia (he lived there for a spell), and how he goes down to Inaba twice a week all season long. Sometimes three times. What he primarily picks up are the seconds, the produce that is not usable in the primary markets. Perfectly good to eat, just misshapen, blemished, poorly colored, too small, too large, etc.
We pull in to the farm and the truck is deftly backed into the receiving area across from a squash field. The ridgeline is gorgeous with the early morning slanted light revealing every contour. They know him well here. I am shown around the work areas where squash is being sorted on this chilly morning. Today we are picking up squash and onions. The Inaba’s are very generous to Northwest Harvest, and the regularity of their donations throughout the season allow people across the state of Washington to have access to fresh, sunshine grown foods.
They load as I explore and before I know it, Big John is locking up the truck doors, and we are on our way back to the warehouse. By the time we get back, I am sorry to see my time with Big John come to an end. But there is more work to do yet, for that is not the end of the story.
There are a lot of different kinds of food in the warehouse, it all needs to be sorted and organized before it can be distributed. The Yakima warehouse sees about 6 million pounds of food revolve through its doors a year. Between the food banks and the meal programs, it all needs to be packaged up in a way that is usable for the people it is meant for. That is where the Northwest Harvest volunteers come in. The volunteers are the grease that keep the gears spinning in this place to make sure all that food is ready to go.
On a breezy Friday around 10 a.m., I sign in. It is a small group today. Just me and some Friday regulars—Bob, Joe and Mark. Mike the Volunteer Liaison is buzzing around on his forklift moving bins and setting up for us. We will be sorting giant bins of onions into smaller boxes. With a 5-gallon bucket at our feet for anything damaged or spoiled, we sort. Mark, who has been volunteering here every Friday for many years, is kicking my sorting butt. He’s about three boxes to my one. Joe just got back from a trip and jabbers on about his experience, Bob works quietly and seems to know just when we’re running out of boxes and silently provides more. Mike makes sure it’s all running smoothly, and before we know it, our 2 hours are up, and we have a couple of boxed onion pallets under our belts going into the cold room and loading area. As they show me around the cold rooms, I really get a sense of the heartbeat that moves this place. Simple yet complex, steady and continuous. This is the official halfway point of my breadcrumb trail.
Next week I will encounter more lovely humans as I explore the delivery and distribution at the food banks. As of right now, after seeing this little bit, I’m feeling pretty grateful for the spirit of giving in my community. There are a lot of parts working in symphony to make this place tick, it’s amazing to follow the string to see how it all really comes together. There are people who care deeply at every level, creating a visceral sense of compassion that is just marvelous to be around. I’m ready for more.